Operating Room: Surgical Care in the Big Picture of Global Health
We all know many people who go above and beyond the day-to-day demands of their careers. Physicians are particularly overwhelmed these days and it is encouraging to hear stories from my colleagues who are balancing their work at home with a heart for helping women all over the world.
Just this week I was able to sit down with my friend Carolyn Thompson, M.D. and hear about her recent trip to Guatemala where she performed gynecologic surgery for women in need. Dr. Thompson is passionate about women’s health at home and abroad, and she has selflessly devoted herself to meeting the needs of all of her patients, whether it be in her busy office in Nashville, Tennessee or in a one-room concrete clinic in Central America.
Eighty operations in five days
She has traveled all over the world, but most of her work outside of the U.S. as an OB-GYN has been in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The patients she treats are an example of the universal need for women to have improved access to surgical care. On her latest trip to Guatemala, the group with whom Dr. Thompson traveled performed over 80 operations in five days across all specialties. When the team arrived on a Sunday, patients were already lined up outside of the small medical clinic which was situated beside the river where families washed and came to be baptized. The crowd cheered for the medical team. The physicians and nurses were invited to a three hour church service and afterwards they began to see patients. They operated continuously during daylight hours, only breaking for lunch, until they had cared for the last patients several days later.
The women to whom Dr. Thompson ministered using the gift of surgery varied in age and need. Some were young and just beginning to start their families, like Marta, a woman with ovarian tumors. The surgical team was able to remove the tumors and preserve Marta’s hope for future children. Other women who came to the clinic were older and finished with childbearing, and they too received the surgical care they needed to restore their health and enable them to care for their families and communities.
More than surgical help
Dr. Thompson also discussed the importance of her continued partnership with organizations and individuals who are invested long-term in the local community. Individuals like Dr. Walter Sierra, a Guatemalan physician who guides the physician teams who come to serve. Adjacent to the medical clinics where Dr. Sierra and Dr. Thompson care for patients, bags of rice, cereal, and powdered milk are piled up in order to provide families with food so that children can eat well and succeed in school. Dr. Sierra’s ‘pharmacy in a bag’ is full of medications for patients in need, but he and the team also have educational resources for the communities. Dr. Thompson treats gynecologic problems such as uterine fibroids and prolapse, but she also works alongside community nurses and educators who perform visits to new mothers, helping them care for their babies and themselves. She helps train medical students and residents in these international settings who will become the physicians of the future, working for hope and healing for the poorest women.
As life-changing as medicine, and particularly surgery, can be, perhaps the most important consideration for implementing medical care abroad is the sustainability of health care programs like these to include adequate education, nutrition and other services. As Dr. Thompson shared her stories with me, I was reminded that a woman’s life can be changed forever in the hands of capable surgeons, but medical care partnered with health training and education is globally transformative.
Kate Celauro is an obstetrician based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her passion for maternal health, however, extends far beyond the hospital where she works. She has been an advocate for women’s health for many years, beginning in college when she saw first hand the differences between healthcare for women in the U.S. and in rural South America where she was working on a thesis. Since that time she has traveled all over the world with her husband, a World Vision Artist, and has become more involved in championing the causes of women.